The Chinese Alphabet, known as “Pinyin,” is the standard phonetic alphabet used in China. Pinyin uses all of the same Latin letters as the English alphabet except instead of “v” it uses “ ü.” A word of caution though - not every letter in Pinyin is pronounced the same way as the equivalent letter in the English alphabet! The chart above shows the initial and final sound combinations used in Pinyin.
Diacritics ( ─, ⁄, ˅, \ ) are also used above the final sounds to indicate the four tones used in Mandarin Chinese.
Chinese characters have existed for thousands of years. The earliest characters, or pictograms, often looked very similar to the items they represented. These characters eventually morphed into the less-pictographic logograms used today which often consist of phono-semantic compounds
Pinyin, on the other hand, is a fairly recent development. China adopted the current form of Pinyin in 1958. Foreigners, however, began developing their own forms of phonetic alphabets for Chinese as early as the turn of the 17th century.
The earliest known phonic alphabet was developed in the early 1600’s by a French missionary named Nicolas Trigault. He understood the Chinese language very well and in 1926 included his version of “Pinyin” in his book “Aid to the Eyes and Ears of Western Literati”
The Chinese government enlisted the help of various Chinese linguists in the 1950s to develop a more sophisticated phonic alphabet. The first version of this alphabet, which is now known as Pinyin, was published in 1958. It has been revised several times and is now used throughout schools in China as a tool to help students learn characters. It is also used in most other countries for the same reason.
Chinese characters and the Pinyin alphabet are two separate and distinctive writing systems. There are over 50,000 Chinese characters in use and 26 letters in the Pinyin alphabet. These letters are used to create the 23 initial and 24 final sounds shown above.
While it may seem like all chinese characters are simply pictographs (characters derived from pictures), there are actually many types of characters - the least common of which is pictographs.
There are relatively few characters in use today which are considered pictographs. These are typically among the oldest Chinese characters still in use. The chart below shows some of the most common pictographic characters used today and how they have changed over time.
These characters consist of two parts. One represents the sound, while the other indicates its meaning. Consider the following examples which all include the phonetic component 青 (qīng).
● Ask: 请 (qǐng) = 讠 (words, yán) + 青 (qīng)
● Feeling, emotion: 情 (qíng) = 忄(heart, xin) + 青 (qīng)
● Clear: 清 (qīng) = 氵(water, shui) + 青 (qīng)
● Clear weather: 晴 (qíng) = 日 (day, rì) + 青 (qīng)
These are characters that express more abstract ideas with symbolic pictographs.These are a few common examples:
A line is added to the top of the character for “tree” (木, mù) to create the character for “tip” (末, mò) and below the character for tree (木, mù) to create the character for “root” (本, běn).
These are characters which consist of multiple pictographs or ideographs whose combined meaning alludes to the meaning of the new character. Here is a common example :
These are characters which have the same meaning now due to sharing the same radical, having similar etymology, or a semantic drift. For example, the words 爸 (bà) and 父 (fù) share the 父 (fù) radical and both mean “father.” Another example are the words 考 (kǎo) and 老 (lǎo) which both mean “old.” These two characters were once the same character and together meant “elderly person.” They have since been separated and are both individually used to mean “old”.
These are characters which were formed by using, or “being loaned” parts of existing characters with the same sound, but different meanings (homophonous characters). For example, a long time ago there was no character for the word “to come” (来, lái), so part of the character for a plant with the same sound was used (莱, lái).
Chinese characters are made up of phonetic and semantic components. Recognizing the various components of characters will make it easier to remember characters and learn new characters. For example, the character 木 (mù) means tree. Two trees 林 (lín) means woods. Three trees 森 (sēn) means forest.
Another example is the character 人 (rén) which means person. Two people 从 (cóng) can mean from, passing through, or following. Three people 众 (zhòng) means a crowd.
Another helpful tool to remember words and phrases is called “object association,” which means to remember a word or phrase based on what the individual characters within that word or phrase are. For example, the character 电 (diàn) means electricity. Many words and phrases which contain this character will relate to electricity, such as:
● 电话 (diànhuà), telephone
● 电脑 (diànnǎo), computer
● 电灯 (diàndēng), electric lights
● 电视 (diànshì), television
● 电影 (diànyǐng), movie
● 电视剧 (diànshìjù), television series
● 电饭锅 (diàn fàn guō), rice cooker
● 电炉 (diànlú), electric stove
● 电动车 (diàndòng chē), electric car
Another example is the character 车 (), which means. Notice the relationship in the following words which contain this character:
● 汽车 (qìchē), car
● 出租车 (chūzū chē), taxi
● 公交车 (gōngjiāo chē), bus
● 自行车 (zìxíngchē), bicycle
● 火车 (huǒchē), train
● 三轮车 (sānlúnchē), tricycle
● 摩托车 (mótuō chē), motorcycle
● 电动车 (diàndòng chē), electric car
There are over 50,000 Chinese characters! The Chinese government considers 2,000 characters enough to be literate, while the average educated Chinese person knows around 8,000 characters. Fortunately, according to Dong Chinese, you only need to know just over 1,066 characters to understand over 90% of the characters in most Chinese books!
While these characters are the most frequently used characters in written material, it may be more helpful to start with the HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi) vocabulary list. The HSK exam is a standard Chinese proficiency exam for non-native speakers. It starts from the most basic, useful words and phrases. The following chart shows how many characters and words someone would need to learn for each HSK level, and the estimated corresponding level of proficien